The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Rise of Private Refugee Sponsorship

The Uniting for Ukraine program and other new initiatives may open the door to a broader role for private citizens in sponsoring refugees.


After an initial period when the United States accepted very few Ukrainians fleeing Russia's brutal invasion, admissions have ramped up in recent weeks, thanks in part to the Biden Administration's new Uniting for Ukraine program, which allows private citizens and organizations to sponsor Ukrainian migrants. These and other developments have led some to hope that the new policies herald a much broader shift to private refugee sponsorship. There is some basis for this optimism. But current policies have significant limitations that will need to be overcome in order to realize their full promise.

CBS recently summarized the growth of Ukrainian refugee admissions:

The U.S. received more than 100,000 Ukrainians in roughly five months following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, fulfilling President Biden's pledge of providing a temporary safe haven to those displaced as part of the largest refugee exodus since World War II, government statistics obtained by CBS News show….

Approximately 47,000 Ukrainians have come to the U.S. on temporary or immigrant visas; nearly 30,000 Ukrainians arrived under a private sponsorship program; more than 22,000 Ukrainians were admitted along the U.S.-Mexico border; and 500 Ukrainians entered the country through the traditional refugee system, the data show….

Only Ukrainians who entered the U.S. with immigrant visas or through the refugee admissions program have a direct path to permanent residency and ultimately, U.S. citizenship. These immigration pathways, however, typically take years to complete due to interviews, vetting and other steps.

Those who have arrived through the Uniting for Ukraine program, which was launched in late April to allow U.S.-based individuals to financially sponsor Ukrainians, were granted parole, a temporary humanitarian immigration classification that allows them to live and work in the U.S. for two years….

To fulfill Mr. Biden's pledge, DHS in late April set up the Uniting for Ukraine program, a free initiative that has drawn tens of thousands of applications from U.S. citizens and others hoping to sponsor the resettlement of Ukrainians, including their family members.

Since April 25, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has received 92,000 applications from U.S. individuals seeking to sponsor Ukrainians, DHS figures show. More than 62,000 Ukrainians have been granted permission to travel to the U.S. as of July 29, including the nearly 30,000 individuals who have arrived so far, according to the DHS data.

In early May, the Biden Administration issued a call for proposals for a pilot private refugee sponsorship program, that might eventually be expanded into a broader policy that goes far beyond Ukrainian refugees.

The Administration's recent moves are obviously an improvement over the anemic official refugee system, which admitted a record low of only 11,411 refugees in fiscal year 2021, despite Biden Administration promises to improve it, after the damage done under Trump.

In a July 27 Foreign Affairs article [unfortunately paywalled, but you can get around it for free], migration policy specialist Gregory Maniatis argues that these and other moves herald a "refugee revolution" under which private refugee sponsorship will increasingly augment and overshadow traditional government-controlled refugee admissions, enabling the United States to take in more refugees at less cost, and with less opportunity for reversal by a hostile administration:

The State Department is the main gatekeeper for the resettlement system, but other federal, state, and local agencies also play critical yet complicating roles. A resettlement agency has to sign a cooperative agreement that is more than 100 pages long and regulates such finicky details as how many forks must be in a refugee's kitchen…. Refugees endure an average of two years of security, health, and other types of vetting, languishing overseas in often distressing or dangerous settings. The system's complexity has grown to the point that even sophisticated national service and faith organizations feel frozen out….

The consequences of the United States' narrow, professionalized approach to resettlement can be seen by comparing it with Canada's program. During the Vietnamese boat lift in the late 1970s, Ottawa opened up resettlement to the public through private sponsorship rather than insisting on a system run exclusively by the government. Today, Canada welcomes about 40,000 refugees a year—which in relation to the overall population would be equivalent to some 350,000 refugees in the United States—the majority through sponsorship….

Nearly a third of Canadians say they have been a member of a sponsorship group or have supported one. As a result, public backing for refugees in Canada makes resettlement untouchable—unlike in the United States, where the Trump administration nearly destroyed the system with surprisingly little resistance. It is one thing for a legislator to be lobbied by refugee professionals. It is quite another if the advocates are the lawmaker's neighbors who are volunteering their time to integrate newcomers—and who themselves are benefiting from the experience. Entire communities have been revived after deciding to systematically welcome refugees…..

The United States should make the Canadian sponsorship model the national resettlement standard—and improve on it. That process is already underway. This past year has upended the outdated American resettlement system as a rush of communities of care—veterans seeking to support their displaced Afghan interpreters and allies, members of the Ukrainian diaspora, service organizations, faith groups, local governments, colleges and universities, and ordinary Americans throughout the country moved by the plight of Afghans and Ukrainians—have demanded to be part of the response to the crises. The Biden administration has improvised in creative ways to address the surge of interest and need. These innovations point the way to a more powerful, community-led system of welcoming refugees in the United States.

I agree with many of Maniatis' points. In a July 18 Washington Post op ed, co-authored with Canadian refugee policy expert Sabine El-Chidiac, I myself argued that the United States should adopt a system modeled on Canada's, with various improvements. We too believe such an approach would be a massive improvement on the current US refugee admissions policy, and we too think the Uniting for Ukraine program was a valuable step in the right direction. The same can be said for the potential pilot program for private refugee admissions reaching beyond Ukraine. And I too believe that policies helping Ukrainian refugees should be extended to those fleeing war and oppression elsewhere. Doing so is both the right thing to do on moral and strategic grounds, and likely to benefit America's economy and society.

But Sabine and I also emphasized that recent initiatives have serious limitations—most notably that they give participating migrants only temporary residency and work rights (two years in the case of participants in the Uniting for Ukraine program). In addition, unilateral executive policies can often easily be reversed by a future, more hostile, administration—much like the anti-immigration Trump Administration undermined traditional refugee admissions.

Maniatis may well be right that community support will make private refugee sponsorship  harder to attack than the traditional government-controlled system. But an administration whose base primarily consists of the more xenophobic and restrictionist portions of the population might be inclined to ignore the opposition of these communities.

Ultimately, a truly firm basis for private refugee sponsorship will require legislative, as well as executive authorization. It will also necessitate giving those admitted permanent residency and work rights, as opposed to merely temporary ones. In the long run, we should go further, and allow many more people—especially those fleeing awful conditions—to migrate without having any kind of advance sponsorship at all. Doing so would create vast benefits for  current US citizens, as well as the migrants themselves.

In the meantime, recent administration initiatives are still useful steps in the right direction. The best should not be the enemy of the good! If nothing else, they have given the lie to claims that the US is incapable of absorbing far larger numbers of refugees.